Understanding Corporate Culture: Experience vs Theory


Good judgement is the result of experience, and most of that comes from bad judgement.  ~Cowboy Wisdom

There seem to be two schools of thought about how to be an effective leader and business person.  According to the widely accepted approach used by most business schools, executive education classes and MBA programs, the best approach is through reading what the “experts” have to say, discussing and debating pre-packaged case studies, and digesting a large amount of information.  This academic approach,to learn from the wisdom (and mistakes) of others, is widely accepted as effective and efficient  to prepare an individual for success in business.

The same school of thought also seems to apply to understanding corporate culture. Read about all the various concepts, such as leadership shadows, national cultures, vision and values statements, culture training programs, then give the assignment to HR to develop a culture transformation process.  But how many actual (and successful) culture transformations has your HR team designed and implemented?

Watching cowboy movies may help you speak like a cowboy, but  it doesn’t make you capable of leading a cattle drive or busting wild broncos! ~more Cowboy Wisdom

Theories come from real experience, not the other way around.

In his book, ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder’, Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about his deep respect for practitioners rather than theorists. Real, usable knowledge, he claims, comes from practicing an activity, not from reading about it.  (thanks to Malcolm Greenhill for his insightful blogs on this and other topics).

Corporate culture is one of the most complicated, and least understood, concepts in business. Every organisation has a corporate culture, whether they designed it from the beginning or let it happen by default. It’s about how people behave in groups and what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. And culture impacts business performance in many subtle, yet powerful ways.

Beware the Culture Survey

A culture survey designed by academics will give you lots of data and colorful charts, but it most likely won’t describe your corporate culture very well. Very few culture assessments audit more than just employee opinions, and tend to ignore key culture drivers such as company policies, the “informal organization”, informal leaders, subcultures, hiring practices, promotional policies, and the host of other ingredients that go into making your corporate culture unique.

Experience isn’t the best teacher, it’s the only teacher.  ~Albert Schweiter

If you really want to understand your corporate culture, become a practitioner not a theorist.  Get your hands dirty. Talk to past employees about what it was like working in your company. Talk to suppliers about what it’s like doing business with you.  Talk to customers about your products and services. Listen to the talk around the water cooler (or canteen or bar). Watch how the senior team behaves when goals are not met.

Then take a long look in the mirror!


Posted by:

John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

email: john@johnrchildress.com

PS: John also writes thriller novels

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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